It was the morning after the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 6. But Gus Kenworthy, a fan of the Paramount+ reality competition and a guest star on All Stars season 4, had not seen it yet.
Such a lapse was “uncharacteristic,” the gay Olympic freestyle skier attests. But it had been a chaotic week. Kenworthy and his boyfriend were “bouncing around” friends’ homes after he sold his Los Angeles apartment; the house he purchased was still under renovation. And another residence he temporarily stayed in had flooded, mandating an evacuation.
Speaking from his car while running errands around L.A. in June, Kenworthy does endorse one drag contestant. “I love Jan, and I felt like she did great on her season but was a little eager,” Kenworthy says of Jan Sport, a New York City-based performer known for perfectionism but ranking “safe,” rather than winning challenges in her season 12 debut. “I’m looking forward to her getting another shot.”
At the time of this interview, the 29-year-old was preparing for his own reality TV spotlight: a Netflix series where he counsels another gay athlete, Colton Underwood, in his coming-out journey. Underwood, a former professional football player who gained TV stardom on The Bachelorette and The Bachelor, publicly revealed his sexual orientation in a Good Morning America interview with Robin Roberts earlier this year. News of the Netflix deal broke the same day, with some tabloids referring to Kenworthy as Underwood’s “gay guide.”
The job title received ridicule on queer social media, and Kenworthy himself bristled at the phrase. “God, please, please, please don’t put it in quotes as ‘gay guide,’” Kenworthy says. “In actuality, I’m kind of just his friend.” The pair met over four years ago when they appeared jointly on a podcast, All Things Comedy. Underwood wasn’t out at the time, but he and Kenworthy stayed on each other’s social radar through Instagram.
Prada black stretch gabardine trousers and black nylon lace-up sneakers Kenworthy’s own: White T-shirt Photographer’s own: Socks (photo by Jen Rosenstein)
So when Netflix approached Kenworthy about appearing on the show, which aimed to document Underwood’s coming-out to friends, family, and the world, it was through the lens of “you’ve kind of been through something similar,” Kenworthy recounts, and “you could give good perspective and insight to him.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds so great,’” says Kenworthy, who saw the series as “a cool opportunity” to chronicle the process of a public figure’s coming-out for an international audience. However, he objected to the media’s appellation of his role. “It put a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and mine included, because that’s not what I signed up for,” he says.
“I don’t want to come across as if I’m this holier-than-thou educator that knows everything. I don’t. I’m still learning myself,” Kenworthy confesses. “But I’m friends with Colton. And then, I know more than he does, because I’ve been out for longer. And so I want to try and pass on some of that knowledge to make it a smoother road for him and to help open his eyes because he does have a platform, and he does have an amazing opportunity to connect with a lot of people.”
Additionally, Kenworthy took issue with the news of the Netflix deal leaking the same day as Underwood’s coming-out, a timing that sparked online accusations of opportunism, among harsher critiques. “While I understood a lot of the criticism [surrounding Underwood] and actually could even say I agree with some of it, it also doesn’t change the fact that it is still a big day for him,” Kenworthy says. “And it’s a huge weight off of his shoulders.”
Prada black stretch gabardine trousers and black nylon lace-up sneakers (photo by Jen Rosenstein)
“I wish that he could have just gotten to have that for his day, instead of having it tied to something else, and kind of making the whole experience ugly,” he says. “I also think that there is a real pile-on effect that the internet and Twitter can have.… It doesn’t feel very good to be on the receiving end of it.”
Kenworthy “tried to warn” Underwood of the potential backlash to his coming-out “because we can kind of eat our own sometimes,” he says. Kenworthy could empathize. He came out in a 2015 interview with ESPN, a year after winning a silver medal in slopestyle at the Sochi Winter Olympics. In doing so, he became the first out gay high-profile competitor in extreme sports. That made him a trailblazer but also — as a muscular white cisgender man — a target of exasperation from some less-represented LGBTQ+ corners. For example, when Kenworthy began dating Gayby actor Matthew Wilkas in 2016, Wilkas was derided as a “boyfriend twin” on social media. (The two are no longer a couple.) And of course, there were critiques from antigay parts of the sports world.
In coping with the backlash — Underwood was also mired in harassment allegations from an ex-girlfriend, The Bachelor’s Cassie Randolph — Kenworthy encouraged Underwood to focus on the positive responses to his coming-out. Through social media, many LGBTQ+ folks praised his visibility and how, in some cases, it was lifesaving for them.
Prada tan garment-dyed cotton pants and cotton sweatshirt (photo by Jen Rosenstein)
“I’m not saying that his is the perfect coming-out story and should be the one that everyone’s getting behind,” Kenworthy says. “But I also do think it’s an interesting story. And it deserves to be seen. And I think that the more representation we can have, the better for everyone.”
Privilege was also a central point of edification. As much as Underwood struggled in the closet, he also had the choice to come out. Many others don’t have “this masculine facade or sports to hide behind,” Kenworthy says. “There’s privilege in looking and being the way he does and I do. It’s sort of about recognizing that privilege and using that privilege to uplift other parts of the community.”
“It’s scary for him to come out. But there are Black trans women that are in fear for their lives every day just for existing. That’s a much bigger fear and a real concern,” says Kenworthy, who strove to make sure his friend’s coming-out was not “self-serving.” The Netflix series also serves as a primer in “unpacking that toxic masculinity,” he attests.
But Kenworthy also shared the joy of being gay with Underwood. “What don’t I love about being gay?” he exclaims. The pair celebrated Pride with a group in the queer East Coast mecca of Provincetown, Mass., this summer. It was a taste of the “feeling of belonging” that was Kenworthy’s highlight after coming out.
“I feel like for so much of my life, I didn’t feel like I belonged,” he says. “I didn’t like myself and resented the fact that I was gay because I was ashamed of it. It just feels so great to be on the other side of that all these years later.”
Kenworthy credits ex-boyfriend Wilkas with being “instrumental” in his own queer immersion. Wilkas, now 43, has been out since he was a theater student at Boston University. The actor introduced Kenworthy to not only a network of friends but also “formative” cultural touchstones like the oeuvre of James Baldwin, The Velvet Rage, and Paris Is Burning. Wilkas “helped me gain perspective,” Kenworthy says. “And it’s something that I continue to remind myself.… I’m doing the best I can.”
In regard to queer sports excellence, Kenworthy also expresses admiration for Carl Nassib, the defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders who in June became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib “knocked it out of the park” in his coming-out video, Kenworthy says. In the Instagram clip, the athlete humbly declared his sexual orientation and also pledged a gift of $100,000 to the Trevor Project, which supports LGBTQ+ youth in crisis.
“I think it was really fucking incredible,” Kenworthy says. He also praises the National Football League for throwing its support behind Nassib by matching his donation and releasing an ad declaring that “football is gay” shortly thereafter. “That’s going to be a smoke signal for anybody else that’s in the closet in the league,” says Kenworthy. “I definitely feel like we’re at a turning point.… I do think that each and every time [a coming-out in sports] happens, it does make it easier for the next person.”
At present, Kenworthy is preparing to bring gay visibility to the international stage at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the last Olympics he plans to participate in. The moment is “bittersweet” and a “swan song” for his career in athletics, he says. While he’s looking forward to the event, “it also is scary. I feel like a large part of my identity has been tied up in skiing since I was a kid.”
The sport changed his life. He recalls being in a ski accident with a few friends when he was 14; one was killed. It was a crucible moment for Kenworthy, who decided to pursue skiing professionally “in his honor.”
As an out Olympian, he also felt an enormous pressure to perform on the world stage. While he made headlines for kissing Wilkas at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea — a coup for queer visibility in sports — he failed to take home a medal that year, a “debilitating” outcome after experiencing “a lot of expectation and pressure” from himself, the LGBTQ+ community, and sponsors.
“It was just really rough. But I also feel like it, in a way, kind of needed to happen. I think it humbled me,” he says. A dual citizen, he will now represent the U.K. in 2022. Regarding his next grand gay gesture at the Olympics, he jokes, “I’ll probably take my dick out.”
On the cusp of 30, Kenworthy is now nearing the end of his prime years as an Olympic athlete. He is “struggling to stay motivated, because I still love the sport. And I still have goals, and I’m excited for this last Olympics. But I also do feel old,” he says, confessing to having more “fear” related to his health.
“It’s not something that I ever used to have, because I used to feel like I was made of rubber. And I would bounce back and I was kind of fearless,” he says. “And then after injury, after injury, after injury, I’m now more scared. And so my approach has kind of changed. And it definitely feels more like a job.”
Smith Optics black “Wildcat” performance sunglasses Prada trousers and sneakers (photo by Jen Rosenstein)
But he says he knows “where the finish line is. And so I’m just trying to push to get there. But it’s not always easy,” he says of finding his drive. He recalls his manager telling him, “‘Well, it seems to me like you would rather be in L.A., like hanging out with friends and looking at furniture and going to pool parties.’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, duh. That’s like a dream weekend.’”
Kenworthy is also developing a new set of skills: acting. He took classes during the pandemic and is “indebted” to gay Hollywood mogul Ryan Murphy for giving him a role on American Horror Story: 1984. He hopes to find many more parts in the future.
The “beauty” of acting, he says, is “that all I can do is get better. It’s not like skiing, where it’s a finite amount of time that you have to do it.” He also says it would be a “dream” to host a television show with fellow gay Olympian Adam Rippon. He’ll be honing those chops by interviewing folks for NBC at this year’s Summer Olympics.
Additionally, Kenworthy looks forward to supporting the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, he raised nearly $250,000 by participating in AIDS/LifeCycle. Outside of philanthropy, he is also outspoken when it comes to conservative attacks and “Republican propaganda” against transgender athletes.
“It’s an affront on trans kids,” he says. “And most of these people we’re talking about are not elite-level athletes training for Olympics or on a world stage. They’re children that just want to play with their friends, whether it’s soccer or field hockey or lacrosse or whatever it is — and they should be allowed to do that.”
But on a personal level, Kenworthy’s goals are relatively modest. “I don’t want to be like super rich or super famous,” he concludes. “I just want to be able to see my friends and help my mom and have a comfortable life.”
Photography Jen Rosenstein, Grooming Priscilla Castro-Preciado, Stylist Vanessa Craig, Lighting Trevor Gens, Digital Tech Josh Fogel. Shot on location at the Rosenstein residence.